1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Harvest

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HARVEST (A.S. hærfest “autumn,” O.K. Ger. herbist, possibly through an old Teutonic root representing Lat. carpere, “to pluck”), the season of the ingathering of crops. Harvest has been a season of rejoicing from the remotest ages. The ancient Jews celebrated the Feast of Pentecost as their harvest festival, the wheat ripening earlier in Palestine. The Romans had their Cerealia or feasts in honour of Ceres. The Druids celebrated their harvest on the 1st of November. In pre-reformation England Lammas Day (Aug. 1st, O.S.) was observed at the beginning of the harvest festival, every member of the church presenting a loaf made of new wheat. Throughout the world harvest has always been the occasion for many queer customs which all have their origin in the animistic belief in the Corn-Spirit or Corn-Mother. This personification of the crops has left its impress upon the harvest customs of modern Europe. In west Russia, for example, the figure made out of the last sheaf of corn is called the Bastard, and a boy is wrapped up in it. The woman who binds this sheaf represents the “Cornmother,” and an elaborate simulation of childbirth takes place, the boy in the sheaf squalling like a new-born child, and being, on his liberation, wrapped in swaddling bands. Even in England vestiges of sympathetic magic can be detected. In Northumberland, where the harvest rejoicing takes place at the close of the reaping and not at the ingathering, as soon as the last sheaf is set on end the reapers shout that they have “got the kern.” An image formed of a wheatsheaf, and dressed in a white frock and coloured ribbons, is hoisted on a pole. This is the “kern-baby” or harvest-queen, and it is carried back in triumph with music and shouting and set up in a prominent place during the harvest supper. In Scotland the last sheaf if cut before Hallowmas is called the “maiden,” and the youngest girl in the harvest-field is given the privilege of cutting it. If the reaping finishes after Hallowmas the last corn cut is called the Cailleach (old woman). In some parts of Scotland this last sheaf is kept till Christmas morning and then divided among the cattle “to make them thrive all the year round,” or is kept till the first mare foals and is then given to her as her first food. Throughout the world, as J. G. Frazer shows, the semi-worship of the last sheaf is or has been the great feature of the harvest-home. Among harvest customs none is more interesting than harvest cries. The cry of the Egyptian reapers announcing the death of the corn-spirit, the rustic prototype of Osiris, has found its echo on the world's harvest-fields, and to this day, to take an English example, the Devonshire reapers utter cries of the same sort and go through a ceremony which in its main features is an exact counterpart of pagan worship. “After the wheat is cut they ‘cry the neck.’ . . . An old man goes round to the shocks and picks out a bundle of the best ears he can find. . . this bundle is called ‘the neck’; the harvest hands then stand round in a ring, the old man holding ‘the neck’ in the centre. At a signal from him they take off their hats, stooping and holding them with both hands towards the ground. Then all together they utter in a prolonged cry ‘the neck!’ three times, raising themselves upright with their hats held above their heads. Then they change their cry to ‘Wee yen! way yen!’ or, as some report, ‘we haven!’ ” On a fine still autumn evening “crying the neck” has a wonderful effect at a distance. In East Anglia there still survives the custom known as “Hallering Largess.” The harvesters beg largess from passers, and when they have received money they shout thrice “Halloo, largess,” having first formed a circle, bowed their heads low crying “Hoo-Hoo-Hoo,” and then jerked their heads backwards and uttered a shrill shriek of “Ah! Ah!”

For a very full discussion of harvest customs see J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, and Brand's Antiquities of Great Britain (Hazlitt's edit., 1905).